Popular composer highlights the lyrical potential of low brass

Classical Music Critic

Jennifer Higdon is one of the most popular of living composers. She’s the winner of two Grammy Awards for best contemporary classical composition (for her Percussion Concerto in 2010, and, just days ago, for her Viola Concerto.) She also won a Grammy this year for best classical compendium. Her Violin Concerto won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. Her tone poem “Blue Cathedral” is one of the most performed classical contemporary pieces.

So it is no surprise that when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra decided to commission a work to highlight its legendary low brass section, all eyes turned to Jennifer Higdon. On Thursday, this work (co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Baltimore Symphony) had its world premiere at Symphony Center under the baton of Riccardo Muti, the music director of the CSO.

Before the concert, the composer explained that she spoke with the four CSO players who would be the soloists. Jay Friedman (tenor trombone), Michael Mulcahy (tenor trombone), Charles Vernon (bass trombone), and Gene Pokorny (tuba) told her that one of the things they wanted was some music that was quiet and lyrical. The low brass can do this, they explained, but composers don’t usually give them the chance.

Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto does this and more. It opens with the four soloists in a stately, pretty chorale with the orchestra later joining in, adding depth. Muti led his forces with his usual skill and grace, particularly drawing careful distinctions in the tempos and dynamics. Higdon created urgency which Muti and the orchestra realized with great effect.

Higdon’s work is vibrant, with a style is unfussy and energetic. And because she uses a conservative harmonic style, her music is generally very accessible. And she had four tremendous soloists. They performed with grace, style, gleaming sound, and wonderful technical skill. The sections of the 17-minute-work which highlighted the soloists featured duets, trios, quartets, and solos. But there were far too few of the last, so that the individual players rarely had their individual moments. It didn’t seem to matter. The audience loved it and when Higdon took the stage for her bow, the audience rewarded her with grateful, generous applause.

After the intermission, mezzo-soprano Clémentine Margaine made her CSO debut as soloist in Ernest Chausson’s “Poème de l’amour et de la mer” (“Poem of Love and the Sea”). This work, which clocks in a little short of half and hour, is neither a song cycle nor a symphony, but has pleasing elements of both. Written in the 1890s, it is glorious music: powerful yet delicate, emotional yet coyly gentle.

Margaine was a splendid interpreter. Her approach was understated, letting the music do its own work. She expressed nuanced feeling and let subtlety be her watchword. Her legato was gorgeous and particularly seductive as she moved half steps in the melody.

The work is set to two poems by Bouchor (a poet the program notes tell us is “now forgotten but once popular enough to have a street in Paris named for him.”) Between them is a brief but evocative orchestral interlude linking them. Here, Muti found the light and dark elements and painted them with exceeding prettiness.

Even Margaine’s gown had a topical and musical flair. It was a black, sleeveless creation with glittering elements throughout and a muted pattern of lightly luminescent irregular lines. It gave the impression of faint light on a dark sea, or perhaps a rocky shore strewn with seaweed lit by a dim moon. It was perfect for the occasion.

This was followed by the Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes” by Benjamin Britten. Here Muti had a big emphasis on the dramatic. “Dawn” was quiet yet still packed with fearful portent. “Sunday Morning” was flinty with the clear sound of church bells. “Moonlight” captured the danger of the opera’s seascape. And “Storm” made palpable the wind and the cold and the unforgiving nature of the ocean’s power.

The concert opened with an early, rarely played work by Stravinsky. “Scherzo fantastique.” The music was amiable and vigorous, an interesting and enjoyable look at the composer’s very early output.

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A memorial service for Philip Gossett (1941-2017) has been announced. The Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Music at the University of Chicago will be remembered at a service on Thur., Feb. 8, at 4:30 p.m. in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (5850 S. Woodlawn Ave.) on the campus of the University of Chicago. It will include performances by tenor Lawrence Brownlee, organist Tom Weisflog, and the University of Chicago Motet Choir under director James Kallembach.